The NATO Alliance’s Growing Ties With Japan And South Korea Raise Risk Of War With China Due To It Being An Intended Provocation.
Even as war raged along the alliance’s borders, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was gallivanting around South Korea and Japan.
True to form, instead of working toward de-escalating the war in Ukraine to avoid a civilization-ending nuclear war with Russia, Stoltenberg appeared ready to tie the alliance into potential future conflicts in Asia, risking war with nuclear-armed China.
NATO has no business in the Indo-Pacific region. The alliance should instead stick to its North Atlantic mandate and avoid stoking powder kegs on the other side of the world.
The North Atlantic Treaty, the foundational basis of the alliance, explicitly covers only the North Atlantic region. Article 5, which includes the crucial language about “an attack against one … shall be considered an attack against them all” applies specifically just to Europe and North America.
This means that attacks on members’ vessels, aircraft or territory outside those regions will not automatically merit an alliance response. North Korea could strike Hawaii or Guam and NATO would not be obligated to strike back.
Stoltenberg’s visit not only went beyond NATO’s geographic mandate but was also an attempt to drag South Korea and Japan into the West’s inflammatory “democracies versus autocracies” paradigm.
To be clear, both South Korea and Japan lean into part of this framing, but more prudently than the West. The pair have focused primarily on preserving freedom and democracy, not on antagonizing other Asian governments for being autocracies.
To demonstrate their alignment with the West and NATO’s values, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol made an unusual appearance at NATO’s summit last June in Madrid, together with their Pacific counterparts from Australia and New Zealand.
Stoltenberg went beyond the measured posture of Yoon and Kishida, however, in remarks during his return visit this month by framing China as a direct challenge to freedom, democracy and Western values. He said NATO partnerships with South Korea and Japan are important and “necessary” to meet this challenge.
Seoul and Tokyo are well aware of this challenge, but both know that unnecessarily antagonizing Beijing could damage their interests. More significantly, NATO’s misadventure in Afghanistan showed how the alliance can be of little use outside of Europe and North America.
More alarmingly, Stoltenberg’s regular inferences that China, as an authoritarian state, is more likely to use force to achieve its national interests than the democratic-inclined members of NATO and its partner nations inflates the threat from Beijing.
His assertion that NATO expected countries to adopt the rule of law and democracy — as the alliance defined them — after the Cold War ended underlines the view that an authoritarian China is an automatic threat to the Indo-Pacific region and the globe.
Such assumptions could spark calls for regime change as the solution to the China challenge. This would cross a red line with Beijing, given the government’s commitment to keeping the Communist Party in power and in control over its governance future.
Not recognizing that China is genuinely interested in preserving its national sovereignty and territorial integrity denies the reality that even a democratic regime in Beijing would still want to establish control over Taiwan and advance territorial interests in the East and South China Seas and along the country’s Himalayan frontier.
Many forget that Taiwan, still formally the Republic of China, technically has most of the same territorial claims as Beijing and even nominally some more expansive ones, such as its constitutional assertion of sovereignty over the entirety of Mongolia.
Even more worryingly, Stoltenberg’s representation of NATO’s position on Taiwan appears unhelpful to cross-strait peace. In an interview with Nikkei Asia during his visit, he said NATO sought to “avoid any change of the status quo,” while repeatedly denying that China is an adversary and insisting that NATO is a defensive alliance.
Beijing could interpret his comments as covert containment, or as an indication that NATO would defend Taiwan if invaded. This could lead China to drop peaceful reunification efforts and look to attack or coerce Taiwan at an opportune time when NATO is distracted or busy rearming.
Stoltenberg and NATO members should drop the Indo-Pacific pivot and focus on the core purpose of the alliance: European security. NATO would benefit more from increased European defense spending which would far exceed that of Russia, the primary threat to Europe, if members followed through on commitments to budget 2% of their gross domestic product to security.
If European states took more responsibility, this would also bolster their defense against transnational threats like cyberattacks and terrorism. At the same time, with Europe handling the primary burden of securing its own defense, America could focus more on its vital national interests.
NATO has no business or mandate in the Indo-Pacific region. It should stay away from creating unnecessary tensions over ideology, stop assuming their claims of authoritarian rule in China makes a war of aggression inevitable and avoid inflaming cross-strait tensions. Its mission to bolster European defense is much more in NATO’s and the United States’ interests than driving towards war with China.